Ask the Air Force: Whoever Controls This Software Will Win the Next War
This fundamental principle—and challenge—has not been lost on the Air Force.
What may have previously been thought of as strictly relevant to the realm of internet technology, today’s data systems, servers, cloud migration, and computer-based cybersecurity innovations have become fundamental to an immense sphere of additional technologies. Indeed, according to Peter Kim, a former Air Force chief information security officer, cybersecurity, data management and processing and information management have migrated far beyond the world of IT to encompass larger weapons platforms, combat networking security, and AI-enabled data analysis.
Technology continues to integrate itself in unexpected ways. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has come to be known as a “flying computer,” unmanned systems are performing high-speed data processing and “transmission” from the point of collection, and warfare has become increasingly multidomain and technology-dependent.
This means larger platforms such as stealth bombers, tanks, and Navy ships are not only war platforms but “nodes” within a larger meshed network across a joint force. This is the conceptual foundation of the Pentagon’s fast-evolving Joint all-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) effort, which not only relies upon the high-speed, accurate organization and transmission of data but also seeks to secure and “harden” that data.
This fundamental principle—and challenge—has not been lost on the Air Force. The service’s increased reliance on cyber technologies has introduced new, unanticipated vulnerabilities as well. This is part of why the Pentagon is working quickly on information assurance technologies and building in redundancies through things like large numbers of medium- and low-Earth satellite launches. Should one node or method of transmission be destroyed or disabled, others will be available to sustain operations.
Years ago, the Air Force sought to preempt these challenges by implementing a seven-point cyber resilience plan aimed at anticipating and thwarting cyber instructions. The plan, as outlined by former commander of Air Force Materiel Command Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, called for “baking in” cyber protections during early phases of weapons development. Much of this involved attempted “mock” cyber attacks and various efforts to penetrate sensitive guidance systems and communications networks for the specific purpose of “hardening” them to safeguard information.
This effort, considered forward thinking and enterprising at the time, continues with intensity today at places such as the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) where teams of scientists and computer experts explore the realm of the possible when it comes to cyber innovations and cutting-edge cybersecurity for both near and long-term applications.
“We have a team up in Rome, New York, that is all about information, science and technology. And they're doing such a great job of looking at a number of aspects of how we best use data and how we collect data? How do we store data? How do we protect data and move data to where it needs to be so that we can leverage it for information and faster, better decisions,” Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, commander of the AFRL, told The National Interest in an interview.
Perhaps the best and most relevant example of this can be found through software. Software upgrades, which have increasingly been able to increase performance, security and precision without needing to completely build new hardware configurations, continues to offer success across Department of Defense. While this pertains to networking, it is also equally critical when it comes to radar systems, weapons guidance, and the functionality of large platforms. For instance, new threat data can be added to existing radar “boxes” to increase its ability to detect otherwise unrecognizable threats. The F-35’s computer-based “mission data files” or threat library can be updated with new specifics on enemy targets when critical new information is gathered.
The F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, in yet another example, massively overhauled the performance of its AIM-9X and AIM-120D weapons through sweeping software upgrades. This technological innovation is why weapons systems across the board are now being built with “open architecture,” or the use of common standards and IP protocol designed to enable continued interoperability as new technologies emerge.
Former Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper succinctly explained the impact of this phenomenon, saying such software will decide who “wins the next war.”
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.